[News-Press] American pride, with asides
By Josef Woodward, News-Press Correspondent
It comes as no surprise or deviation from the central theme of last weekend’s all-American Santa Barbara Symphony program at The Granada that the conductor, our beloved Nir Kabaretti, is an Israeli who lives much of the time in Italy, or that the piano soloist, the commanding Xiayin Wang, is a New Yorker by way of a rigorous musical upbringing in her native China. America is nothing if not the proverbial melting pot landscape, and multi-cultural energies and input impact its classical musical life as much as any other facet of society, if not moreso.
Cultural symbiosis and historical cross-stitching, in fact, were also embedded in the musical element itself. The work affording Ms. Wang her tour de force spotlight on the concert, George Gershwin’s fabulous and clearly jazz-flavored Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra, was a follow-up to his cherished “Rhapsody in Blue,” and like the earlier model, tilts toward European vocabulary while proudly showcasing American musical airs. Likewise, the energetic bravado and lyrical gusts of Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances from ‘West Side Story’ ” taps into jazz, Broadway, and Euro-centricities of scoring.
Adding a glow to the event, this all-around inspiring concert opened with that inherently progressive note, the sound of a world premiere unfolding. In honor of the Santa Barbara Symphony’s 60th anniversary season that’s under way, composer Jonathan Leshnoff was commissioned to write an orchestral work to highlight the milestone. His resulting four-movement, 20-minute “Concerto Grosso in the Baroque Style” is a bright and lovely piece, rising to an occasion of its own expressive terms while succeeding in giving the orchestra a hearty, accessible performance forum.
Musically, the affable and tonal contemporary language isn’t so much in the Baroque style as the form itself, designed to feature a diverse cast of instrumental characters, movement by movement. And so, with the well-known Bach’s “Brandenburg Concertos,” different instruments assume the solo spot, from the twin violins in the muscular first movement to the slow second movement, with cello, horn, trombone and trumpet on the front line.
Winds take over in the third movement, in a more active, kinetic scoring across the soloists.
Finally, in the finale, all the soloists resumed their positions in the ranks of the orchestra, now integrated into the ensemble mesh, but with solo spots spread out amongst them. The final movement bustles along in a lively manner, yet ends on a surprising crisp chord with a suspended air. Solidly conceived and wonderfully played here, Mr. Leshnoff’s new orchestral invention is a charmer worth repeated hearings.
On this program, the Santa Barbara Symphony had its share of impressive stage and face time, continuing with Bernstein’s overture-like condensation of themes, rhythms and attitudes from “West Side Story.” Heard in this form, without vocalists or theatrical trappings to get “in the way,” we can duly sink into and be bandied about by the power of the purely musical invention of the composer’s thinking. Mr. Kabaretti led the orchestra with a driving force and dynamic sensitivity, to suit the landscape.
In this piece, intricate syncopations in the scoring and bold jazz moves, as well as finger-snapping moments and an actual swinging drum kit section at the end, reminds us that we’re not in the Euro-Baroque zone anymore. For all its swagger and cerebral intensity, the piece boasts introspective beauty, as well, in the gorgeous ballads “There’s a Place For Us” and “Maria,” and the disarming solo flute passage separating a sweaty feverish section from its peaceful idyll to conclude.
Having heard this orchestra deliver a fine performance of “Rhapsody in Blue” in last year’s all-American program, with pianist Terrence Wilson at the keys, the experience of hearing this fine and Gershwin-sensitive pianist dig into the pianist-composer’s next Concerto in the same room had an evolutionary relevance. As it happens, Ms. Wang has been dealing with Gershwin, directly and otherwise, through performances such as this concerto and the “Variations on ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ ” from her recent recording of music by the late American composer Earl Wild.
At The Granada, we quickly sensed her firm understanding of this music, from the first moments of her solo part in the Concerto in F, with its tolling low note leading into flowing pianistic lines and varying degrees of jazz think. She brings a dynamic and charismatic approach to the score, and intertwines with the orchestra in properly sympathetic, Gershwin-designed ways. A sassy bluesy feel sneaks into the slower second movement, with a colorful trumpet solo striking a note of comparison with another recent visitor to the Granada stage, Wynton Marsalis. It is uptempo time again in the splashy final movement, and Ms. Wang issued forth swirling fistfuls of notes at the piano, in warm dialogue with the orchestra.
At concert’s end, the verdict: American “concert music” is not a bad or second-best place at all. This symphony’s habit of devoting one of its season’s concerts to music from these United States is a habit worth nurturing into the future.
Returning for a pair of apt solo piano encores, the winning Ms. Wang offered up a short rendition of Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm” — the song that launched a thousand jazz tunes based on its “Rhythm” changes — and then a rippling Chinese piece. She wears her globalist cultural cred well, with echoes of New York, Shanghai and other spots on the expanding universe of musical references between cultures. Very all-American of her.